The trouble with wheat

Even before the anti-wheat movement had begun, I started to acknowledge that my own body’s digestive system felt better, and more importantly, functioned better when I ate less wheat.

wheatfreemeals1

Wheat, it seems, is part of everything we eat constantly. Think about it: we have wheat for breakfast (toast, cereal), sandwich for lunch (bread made with wheat) and often durum-wheat pasta or another bread product for dinner (or both, like pasta with crusty bread to sop up the sauce). In between, and especially in the mid-afternoon when so many people feel a real slump in energy, we reach for a wheat snack (wheat crackers and cheese, muffin, or a baked good, most of which are made with wheat).

wheatfreemeal2

No wonder I was always tired. That’s a lot of refined carbs…even switching to whole-wheat, which is supposed to be healthier, didn’t alleviate my bloating problem. What was causing me to be so tired all the time?

To learn how to better battle my chronic exhaustion, which I initially chalked up to being a parent of young children, I visited my naturopath doctor. I wanted to know how my body can heal this lack of energy naturally. The first thing she said was “are you getting enough protein”. This sounded awfully like what my DH is doing with his own diet: he switched to the Paleo diet (well, he’s following it as closely as possible) which focuses primarily on protein. Actually, we hesitate calling it a diet since it’s more of a lifestyle choice. In essence, he eats protein as the bulk of his meals (breakfast being especially important) with a ton of raw fruits and vegetables. His diet consists of little if any grain even though some gluten-free grain (i.e. wheat-free grain) like quinoa is considered a very high protein grain and good for you. Paleo doesn’t recommend any grain so he doesn’t reach for it, prefers instead to eat potatoes or sweet potatoes, or squash as his carb intake.

Protein comes in many sources and not just meat. He eats fish, eggs and some vegetables more often than others (although he does not like beans at all, which is unfortunate because beans are a good source of vegetarian protein).

I thought about this protein thing. I have issues with the ‘hunter and gatherer’ diet that Paleo is mimicking. Firstly, we are neither hunters nor gatherers. Sure, I hunt for organic produce at the store, but that’s not what the terms means 🙂 and gathering herbs for your salad in your backyard isn’t quite the image one conveys when thinking of our stone-age ancestors. They ate arugula because it grew wild in the field, not because it’s an artisan supplement to the roasted beet salad with herbs on our plates. Secondly, even the most active amongst us are not anywhere near as active as the ‘feast or famine hunter and gatherer’ types of years past. Seriously, we’re all sedentary compared to those days, I don’t care how many marathons you train for. It’s not the same thing.

But my doctor had a point. More protein and less carbs, especially refined carbs, made sense to me.

So I gave it a try. I figured, if the bloating or exhaustion didn’t subside when I dropped wheat from my diet for a couple of weeks, I can go back to indulging in it. And if it worked, if I felt better, well then, I’ll cross that wheat-free bridge when the time comes.

For two weeks I ate no wheat. Here’s how I did it:

  • An organic bakery down the street had spelt bread which tasted fine to me, which helped me make the crossover. Alternately, there is sprouted bread, kept in the freezer at both health and increasingly regular grocery stores, which DH prefers to the spelt. He uses it like he would toast.
  • I ate oats with seeds, nuts and dried fruit (raisins, apricots) and added 1% milk to make a muesli-type cereal. That held me over so well and to almost lunch time, I ate it practically every day.
  • I ate fruit and especially vegetables, mostly raw, in the form of salads or just cut up and on a plate. Carrots, fennel, and the rest of it.
  • I grilled vegetables like onions, bell peppers, eggplant and zucchini and mixed it with pasta sauce and skipped the wheat-pasta all together.
  • I made quinoa salad, or mixed olives, feta cheese and cherry tomatoes with olive oil and balsamic vinegar and some herbs to battle the salt cravings (which I used to satisfy with salty wheat-crackers and cheese).
  • I ate a hard-boiled egg and a granola bar made without wheat but loaded with nuts, seeds and dried fruit for breakfast.

I did all of that and…I wasn’t bloated in the evenings. I wasn’t exhausted in the afternoon. And best of all – I lost weight.

I am not overweight but I am over 40 and had two kids, so there’s a bit of excess weight in certain areas I was not sad to see disappear.

I felt better. And I knew that all this wheat had to go. Or at least reduce its frequency.

So how can you make the change without feeling deprived or restricted as if on some diet?

One of the main things is to forget about the word diet. Diet, for those of us who grew into adulthood in the 80s and 90s, has poisoned us against what should be considered healthy eating. Your diet should fuel you and, like Andrea in the Fishbowl mentions often enough in her blog (for example in this final post of a series), should be a pleasant, enjoyable experience. Food growing, food prep, food consuming is a social, happy experience and should not be about restriction or denial. Food, in its pure, whole sense, can be enjoyed in moderation without breaking the budget or gaining weight. Dropping, or at least reducing wheat products, especially refined, packaged items, isn’t that hard when there are so many other wholesome foods to choose from. We really are spoiled here in the West.

A little bit of attention to food prep (including shopping) remedied this too-much wheat problem for us. For example, I keep quinoa salad, cut up veg and fruit or berries (which the kids love so I always have plenty) in the fridge. Even just a few spoonfuls of the salad will help starve off the craving for a sweet confection with my coffee, and the afternoons were no longer an ordeal.

[Side note: because I no longer eat as much wheat as I did before, I can now indulge in a wheat-baked good occasionally without it affecting my digestive system. I just have to watch that if I have that almond croissant today I won’t be eating French style baguette for lunch tomorrow. There is no restriction or denial, but there is moderation. My emotional self says ‘feeling crappy, tired, bloated and irritable is not worth the 5 minutes of gooey sugary baked yumminess’ on a regular basis. This attitude adjustment won’t necessarily happen overnight, but it will happen with a little bit of preparation and thinking ahead.]

I am not advocating that wheat is all bad. I would however encourage anyone who may experience regular discomforts with bloating in the later part of the day to try a wheat free diet for a week or two. Just drop all wheat products, and load up on the gluten free stuff, or supplement with the many other types of flours that do not contain gluten. This is a great time of year to try it because the gardens are just starting to produce fresh fruit and produce. If the symptoms disappear, a few lifestyle changes in your food prep and consuming isn’t that difficult to incorporate. I’m living proof of it, and can now, after having done the elimination test that determined I did in fact react to wheat, have an occasional wheat product without adverse effects.

Here’s a few tips to get you started:

  • instead of regular pasta, use rice pasta (the taste is almost identical and when drenched with sauce, you can’t tell the difference at all)
  • use grilled vegetables instead of pasta (we use eggplant and zucchini)
  • spelt and oat flours make delicious pastries and bread. If you’re not a baker, these days many bakeries and stores offer gluten-free goods. Just watch for the ingredients; some of the gluten-free baked goods have too much sugar, salt or additives in it that may not make it worth while to switch.
  • keep on hand a few hard-boiled eggs. They are a great source of protein and can be kept on the counter (no need to refrigerate). Eat as breakfast, snack or lunch.
  • lentils and beans make great salads. Make enough to keep on hand in fridge, and keep it interesting by mixing a few spoonfuls with lettuce or herbs one day, or stuff it into a gluten-free tortilla to make a wrap. Easy and full of protein.
  • chickpeas can be eaten as a salad or used as dip in the form of hummus. Make it yourself in large batches, it’s so easy and quick and doesn’t contain any of the additives of the store-bought version.
  • when I crave salt I eat feta cheese, or marinated olives. Sheep-milk feta tastes like cow-milk but doesn’t cause bloating (like some cow-milk dairy does).
  • Corn tortilla chips are delish but they make me feel the same as wheat products (sluggish and bloated).  Switch to rice crackers, dip in salsa, and eat as snack (or lunch).

Finally, if you have a setback, don’t beat yourself up. We are accustomed to habits that took a long time to form, changing them to something different will take time and perseverance. Ultimately for those of us who are chasing children around, feeling energetic and, um, hormonally balanced is an objective most of us aim for. Once you’re settled into something that works, you can go ahead and bake your strawberry-rhubarb pies or Christmas cookies with the regular wheat-flour we all grew up with and enjoy. When you’re done eating your tasty confections, go back to your regular wheat-reduced lifestyle, and relax.

It’s only food, after all.

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2 thoughts on “The trouble with wheat

  1. This is amazing. I am bookmarking it – we have just ventured into the gluten-free zone with my youngest, but like you said, so many prepared goods are full of nothing. You have some great tips here – thank you.

    • I have tons of tips, all through my blog, but I’m bad at tagging. And I could take my advice more often….it’s so easy to reach for this or that when in a hurry and hungry. I guess if we consider the wheat thing an allergy (even if it’s not) we might make more of an effort. I’m on this boat though, and hoping to make it a more regular feature in this blog. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment, Karen!

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